Summary: You must not be called ’Teacher,’ because you are all equal and have only one Teacher. And you must not call anyone here on earth ’Father,’ because you have only the one Father in heaven. Nor should you be called ’Leader,’ because your one and only leader
“Call no man ‘Father’” says Jesus.
That’s part of our reading today from Matthew 23. Jesus says, “call no man ‘Father’”. What’s that doing here? And I don’t just mean what’s it doing here as this week’s reading. I mean, what’s it doing in the Bible?
Since the (not so recent) publication of “The Da Vinci Code” there’s been something of a revival of the theory that, over the centuries, the church has deliberately changed the Bible to suit its own aims - deleted a bit here, added a bit there, etc. I would contend, if that were the case, why on earth didn’t the church get rid of this bit? It’s a downright embarrassment!
After all, here it is, in black and white, and yet, what do nine out of ten kids say to me when they see me in the Youth Centre (or in the street for that matter) … “Hey Father!” And of course I respond by saying, “A curse be upon you, son! Hast thou not read in the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew that our Lord Jesus Himself explicitly forbade us from calling any man ‘Father’ (including me … and including your own father [if you have one])?” No, I don’t respond that way, do I? They say to me, “Hey Father” and I reply, “Hey brother”.
Mind you, there was one institution that I was once a part of where people did respond in pretty much that way - that international bastion of Anglican Puritanism, Moore College!
While I was there this verse was indeed regularly drawn upon by students and addressed quite aggressively to some of their more Catholicly-inclined fellows. Did not Jesus say, “Call no man Father”? No one, we claimed, would ever call us by that forbidden title. We knew what we wanted to be called ... “teacher”!
I kid you not. Indeed I remember being lectured there by the (once) Principal who said that ‘Teacher’ was the title people most regularly used when they addressed Jesus, and so that should be the title we aspire to too!
And I don’t remember anyone responding to that suggestion by saying, “Hang on. Just before Jesus said, “Call no man ‘Father’”, didn’t He also say, “Call no man ‘Teacher’”? For some reason that link was never made.
In truth though, I don’t believe that the real issue at stake here is one of words at all! I don’t believe that Jesus was really ever overly-concerned with making sure that everybody got their terminology right and I don’t believe (and I address this to my own son in particular) that this verse gives anyone an excuse for calling their dad by his first name!
At any rate, the real issue at stake here is something that is far more significant than any bickering over the minutiae of appropriate terminology. The real issue here is the abuse of religious power - something that I suspect we are all sadly familiar with.
And I don’t just mean that very obvious abuse of religious power, where clergy have used their position to sexually abuse people who are supposed to be in their care, but that broad abuse of title and position where religious leaders use their ecclesiastical credentials to leverage themselves into positions of comfort and control.
These religious leaders, Jesus says, “do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi” (Matthew 23:5-7) but this, says Jesus, is not what spiritual leadership is supposed to be about!
I thought it might be helpful at this stage to make some sort of distinction between power and authority, or at least between different sorts of authority - between what we might term ‘institutional authority’ and ‘charismatic authority’.
‘Institutional authority’ in its most extreme form, is that which Mao Tse Tung referred to as the “power that grows out of the barrel of a gun”. It is power that has government backing, power that has credentials behind it. It’s the power you wield when you’re the only job applicant with a string of letters after your name, representing all the University degrees you’ve accumulated. It’s the power you gain at Ordination - to take over a church and tell everybody exactly what they’re supposed to do (except the Wardens of course [in the Anglican system] who you have to be very nice to, as they can withhold your pay if they don‘t like you. God knows how that clause crept into our constitution).
At any rate, institutional authority is this exercise of power that comes from the top-down - where the guy with the position and the credentials wields executive power. ‘Charismatic authority‘, on the other hand, is that which comes from the bottom-up! It’s the authority people give to you, or that they recognise in you, such that they choose to respect your leadership.